Conflicting emotions in the office

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 October, 2004, 12:00am

People vary as to how willing they are to call a spade a spade. And they vary along cultural lines. A conventional explanation for this hinges on the serviceable east-west divide. The collectivist Asian, the theory goes, depends heavily on relationships and to preserve them, circles around conversational potholes with discretion. Meantime, the individualist westerner cuts straight to the chase.

However, there are more nuanced accounts for why some people are conversational tiptoers, while others barge their way to the point. One is Conversing Across Cultures, a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by researchers at Michigan, Seoul National and Nanjing universities. They drew on research in the United States, China, South Korea, Thailand, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan. The team teased apart cultural reasons why people are direct or indirect, but also looked at individual factors and at the influence of place.

A key discovery was that collectivists and individualists differ only in certain situations. Collectivists, whether at work or elsewhere, save and give face by broaching criticism with circuitous tact and they avoid the unadorned 'truth' when its reception is likely to wound, embarrass, anger or otherwise cause unpleasant feelings. The westerner, on the other hand, only treads as softly with friends and family. As soon as the office lift doors open, it seems, he or she reverts to a stereotypical personification of bluntness.

Why are Asians consistently diplomatic in their relations, while westerners are not? Obviously, the collectivist-individualist explanation is only partial. So the researchers looked back. Quite far back, actually, to a religious tradition of 17th century Europe that has fallen out of bibliographic vogue in recent years: Calvinism and the Protestant work ethic, as famously articulated by Max Weber. 'Protestant relational ideology' refers to this tradition and the belief that taking people's feelings into account is unprofessional. Showing emotion is fine in the Calvinistic view - although not encouraged - elsewhere in life. But in the workplace, the ideal is relational asceticism. Real professionals, in other words, are emotionally detached.

Protestant relational ideology has long since lost its religious associations and, today, is completely absorbed into contemporary Anglo-American cultures. Its roots are still showing, however.

Indeed, individuals in most cultures show equally strong emphasis on relational concerns at both work and outside work. Cultural syndromes, such as guanxi in China, share an emphasis on relational concerns across all domains 'from the dinner table to the office', as prominent Hong Kong psychologist Michael Harris Bond put it.

So it is plausible that the western exception is due to the particular effects of Protestant relational ideology and its strong association between impersonality and productive work.

Naturally, because the direct-indirect gulf is greater in work than other situations, a culturally diverse workplace is probably a particularly likely spot for miscommunication and misunderstandings to arise.

One way to short-circuit such problems, propose the researchers of the paper Conversing Across Cultures is to find ways to trigger westerners' non-work relational style in work settings. Cross-cultural work discussions in social contexts would help, for example, as well as increased opportunities at work for informal interactions.

Making work more like play? Isn't that unprofessional?

Jean Nicol is a psychologist specialising in issues of cultural identity and change in an era of globalisation